Third Nari Mukti Sangharsh Sammelan, Patna 1988: Women & Patriarchy

Women and Patriarchy 

—a report of the discussions at the Third Nari Mukti Sangharsh Sammelan 

Newsletter May 1988

The Third Nari Mukti Sangharsh Sammelan was held in Patna during February 5-8, 1988. Women activists of all classes, from various parts of the country, urban and rural, came to attend this conference. 

The discussions were held in small groups on the following main themes: (I) Women, work and property; (2) Women and violence; (3) Women, health and ecology; (4) Women, communalism, culture and religion; and (5) Women, patriarchy and struggles. 

There were representatives from autonomous groups as well as those affiliated to political parties. Some men were also present. Besides, there were individuals who did not belong to any group or organization. Everybody shared a common belief that: 

1. The struggle for women’s liberation is a struggle against the entire existing exploitative socio-economic and political structure; 

2. Women are specifically oppressed by patriarchy within this system and need to wage a specific struggle against that oppression; 

3. In the Indian context, women’s oppression is inextricably interwoven with class, caste, communalism, the erosion of democratic rights, ethnic discrimination and other issues, and that women’s participation in struggles on such issues is vital; 

4. It is necessary for women to organize specifically as women, whether in units of, or affiliated to larger political organizations, or as autonomous groups, to address issues outlined above. 

In other words, the understanding was that women’s liberation cannot be achieved until we create a society free of all other forms of exploitation. To develop this common level of understanding, it was felt necessary to organize discussions under the broad theme, “Women, Patriarchy and Struggles.” The main issues discussed were: 

(a) forms of patriarchy in personal, organization and state-related structures and struggles against them; 

(b) the role of various organizations in social change; 

(c) the participation of women in general struggles; 

(d) the relations between various organizations; 

(e) role of personal struggles of women in the movement; 

(f) role of men in the women’s movement; 

(g) influence of institutional and government funding on the movement; 

(h) how to consolidate and carry forward the gains of the women’s movement. 

Due to insufficient time, the groups were not able to discuss all issues. The different opinions and stands that emerged on these issues are given here. The reports of the various groups could not be presented at the conference due to lack of time, hence it is possible that certain viewpoints may not have been included. 

1. Q. What do we understand by patriarchy? 

Opinions: The struggle against patriarchy is not a struggle against men. Patriarchy means a set of values, behaviour and attitudes which is responsible for women continuing to assume a secondary status in society. Both men and women are affected by patriarchal values and both are responsible for the perpetuation of such values. 

- While some felt that patriarchy is only a feudal tradition, others differed strongly and said that all prevalent societies are patriarchal. 

- Some were of the opinion that every man benefits from patriarchy irrespective of his suffering some other form of exploitation. But a few felt that both men and women are oppressed by feudal exploitation and therefore the struggle is not against patriarchy but against feudal exploitation. 

- It was also said that in patriarchy women have no part in decision-making processes. 

2. Q. What is the role of the autonomous women’s movement? Is the struggle only against patriarchy or is it for larger societal change? What kind of alliances should autonomous women’s organizations make with other organizations and with those affiliated to political parties? 

Opinions: It was unanimously agreed that women’s liberation is not possible without an autonomous women’s movement, but there were different viewpoints as regards the role of such a movement. 

- The women’s movement should necessarily be directed against patriarchy and act as a powerful pressure group. 

- The women’s movement should raise all issues of women’s liberation within the family. 

- The autonomous women’s movement should not take the form of a political party. 

- Other democratic organizations should also focus on women’s issues. 

- Feminist thinking is related to every aspect of society and therefore it is necessary for the women’s movement to create an alternative political force. 

Regarding formation of alliances, there were various opinions: 

- The women’s movement should join with all other democratic forces. 

- Women’s organizations should form a national forum. 

- Women should participate in general struggles. But the women’s movement should remain independent till they come into direct conflict with the state. And then they should go ahead with other democratic forces. 

- Autonomous women’s organizations should first be made strong by themselves and then join in the mainstream movement in their own right. 

- Women’s groups cannot form alliances now as there cannot be any common unified perspective. They should interact and dialogue with one another and can form issue-specific alliances. 

- Alliances should be formed on a principled stand. Alliances with reactionary and communal women’s organizations should be clearly avoided, even on grounds of issues. 

- There is a difference between the women’s movement and the feminist movement. The feminist movement is in itself a mainstream movement. 

3. Q. Women activists need to wage struggles within the family and also against patriarchy—this alienates them from the rest of the community. How can they assume leadership in general struggles? 

Opinions: Women have to wage struggles against prevalent values whether it is in the women’s movement or other democratic movements. They are perceived as being different by other women as well as the community. This attitude is also reflected in other mass movements. It is necessary to bring about a change in such attitudes and this is slowly happening. Some felt that after a persistent struggle, these activists can re-establish themselves in the community. 

Some were of the opinion that to establish credibility in a rural community, one has to initially raise issues which are not a direct attack on men. At the same time, it is necessary to work towards bringing about a change in the way men think. 

4. Q. Socialism has not brought about complete freedom for women. Hence, it is necessary on the one hand to make the women’s movement stronger, on the other hand to take part in leadership of mass movements. How- can women participate in the leadership of mass movements? 

Opinions: It became debatable as regards the gains made by women from socialism. The various views expressed were: 

- Women have achieved complete freedom in socialist countries. 

- There were varying opinions about women not having achieved complete freedom in socialist countries. Some thought that women’s liberation cannot be brought about overnight even if the nation is inclined towards it. Others felt that although the condition of women in these countries may have improved considerably they have not been able to achieve full equality. 

- Socialism was perceived to be a reformist movement and not a transformative movement where women have only achieved more rights in a continuing patriarchal system. 

- Besides this, most women were in agreement that women’s liberation is not possible until society is free of all other forms of exploitation. It is not sufficient for women to merely participate in mass movements, they should try to take part in the leadership as well. It was also agreed that mere socialism will not bring about women’s liberation in the absence of an autonomous women’s movement. 

- An autonomous women’s movement was also necessary to bring about women leadership in general struggles. Women can struggle for leadership in other mass movements only by being actively involved in the women’s movement. 

- Women activists face financial problems outside the family and hence leadership or participation in struggles is not easy.

5. Q. Do problems faced by women of different classes differ? Is it possible for women of all classes to form an organization or can they come together only on certain issues? 

Opinions: A woman’s class identity is different from her family’s class identity, and therefore it is possible for all women to unite. 

- Issues facing different women are different. Some gender specific issues cut across classes but the effect on different classes varies. Sometimes issues of morality are different from class to class. It was also felt that middle-class women tend to dominate poor women. And therefore there should be different organizations. 

There were various opinions on the issue of leadership: 

- Leadership should be in the hands of peasant or working women. 

- It was felt that on issues such as technology, ecology, etc. only middle class leadership was possible. 

- Middle class women can assume leadership if they can de-class themselves. 

- Urban women need to link up with rural women so as to make them aware of new possibilities. 

6. Q. Why is the autonomous women’s movement perceived as a divisive force by some left parties? 

Opinions: Some felt that this was not so in India. Among those who disagreed, there were differences as regards the reasons why left parties felt this way. 

- The women’s movement is threatening male domination in left parties by raising issues of leadership and openly questioning issues related to family. 

- In certain places, women have participated in large numbers in party activities. Hence, left parties feel threatened that they will lose this support with women becoming active in the women’s movement. 

- Some women’s groups put forward their anti- family position without any class analysis; therefore, left parties perceive the entire women’s movement to be divisive. 

- Men perceive the women’s movement to be divisive as it challenges patriarchy. 

- The women’s movement addresses itself primarily to women’s issues and then to class questions, therefore it is misunderstood by left parties. Dalits and other communities do not oppose this perspective of women’s groups. 

7. Q. There is a tremendous amount of financial help for women’s development from national, international, government and charitable institutions. Why are different kinds of anti-people forces giving aid to women for income-generation, educational, organizational and other activities? What is its impact on the women’s movement, on those who receive such aid and those who do not? 

Opinions: Funding was seen as an acute problem at the organizational level. But many were of the opinion that any kind of financial aid except for donation is avoidable. Some participants expressed their views against foreign, government and institutional funds. National and international funding was perceived in different ways by others. 

- Some perceived foreign funding as an imperialist design to control weaker sections. 

- It was felt that we have full rights over government money and should fight for its control. 

The reasons given against financial aid were: 

- Funds are given for developmental work and this suppresses struggles. 

- It was felt that foreign funded movements become directionless and sooner or later lose their influence. 

- It creates unequal hierarchical positions in organizations. 

- It makes people doubt the integrity of those involved. 

The reasons given in favour of financial aid were: 

- Some felt that funds have enabled individual women to have better control over their lives and hence contribute to the movement. 

- Some felt that such money can be used to penetrate new areas of work and raise consciousness. 

- It was felt by a few that acceptance of aid is fine if we can plan our work and have control over it. 

8. Q. What have been our experiences in the struggle against patriarchy? What has been the impact of new laws? How can we best integrate our experiences to carry our work forward? 

Opinions: This question could not be discussed in all its aspects. It was agreed that significant changes have been brought about in law. But these are not adequate, there is not enough information available to people about them and there is lack of follow-up, publicizing our demands, etc. 

The value of legislation is seen in the struggle of individual women, for whom the law is often the only redress from patriarchal oppression. 

It was felt necessary to bring about more changes in law and the spread this awareness among people. 

9. Q. What has been the experience of women’s participation in general struggles? Has it increased their strength or do they feel used when they are forced to go back to the four walls of a home? How can women effectively participate in general struggles with this double burden? 

Opinions: Participation in general struggles has been a positive experience for most women and added to their strength.

- The role of the women’s movement seemed significant for women to have equal participation. Patriarchal values are inherent in most mass organizations and women do not much participate in decision-making or in raising issues related to them. 

10. Q. When we say that we want a society based on equality, how do we perceive the prevalent forms of organizations? 

Opinions: Hierarchical values are prevalent in many organizations including women’s groups but there is a conscious effort to do away with them. It was felt that people adopt these values from society at large. Some felt that hierarchy emanating not from position but from experience, expertise, etc. could also be negative if it was not actively used to help others move forward. 

11. Q. What is the role of personal struggles in the women’s movement? 

Opinions: There were various opinions expressed: 

- Women who had to struggle in their individual lives are sometimes able to understand others better and can play a more active role in the movement. 

- Personal struggles of women are of vital importance to the movement. 

- Some felt that the end of the struggle should not be the breaking up of the family. 

- Some felt that personal struggle is not of any great significance to the movement. 

- A few felt that only by doing away with the institution of the family will it be possible to strike equal and enriching relations.

12. Q. What is the role of men in the women’s movement? Can they gain membership in organizations? 

Opinions: There were various views expressed. 

- While men can be allowed to cooperate, there should be no dependency on them. 

- Their cooperation becomes very necessary in rural areas. 

- Very few agreed on men becoming members of women’s organizations. 

- It is necessary to involve men in some issues, e.g. campaigns against dowry. 

- Women need to work towards changing the mentality of men. 

- All men who support the women’s movement can form groups to deepen their understanding of the movement. They should actively cooperate with and encourage autonomous women’s groups to grow. 

It is evident that there were various opinions on different issues. It is necessary to discuss some of these issues at length. The discussions held in Patna can be seen as the beginning of a process.